Cardiff City’s surrender to relegation

In the end, it was a relief. Cardiff City surrendered their Premier League status today with another heavy defeat, away to Newcastle United. Owner Vincent Tan’s sacking of manager Malky Mackay in December destroyed the Bluebirds’ hope of securing a second season in the top flight.

Tan thought that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United pedigree would save the day. The opposite has been true: Solskjaer’s team has conceded an alarming number of goals without unduly threatening the opposition. By contrast, Mackay achieved some famous results, including defeating title contenders Manchester City, drawing with Manchester United and beating arch rivals Swansea.

At least we don’t have to worry about second season syndrome…

David Moyes, Frank O’Farrell and Cardiff City

David Moyes was fired as Manchester United manager today. The only surprise was that he lasted as long as he did. What are the chances that he follows in Frank O’Farrell’s footsteps and becomes Cardiff City manager?

Frank O’Farrell, like Moyes, took on mission impossible by following a legend as Man United boss – Matt Busby. He lasted longer than Moyes at Old Trafford, but also inherited a team that was in rapid decline from days of glory. He has described how Busby’s presence at United utterly overshadowed his unhappy time as manager. Moyes found Sir Alex Ferguson far more supportive, but Fergie’s extraordinary legacy of success would have been a formidable burden for anyone who took his place.

O’Farrell went on to become Cardiff City manager the season after losing his job at United. It was a big step down, as the Bluebirds were struggling at the foot of the old second division. He got the job at City days after Jimmy Scoular was fired after Cardiff lost the very first game I ever went to see: at home to West Bromwich Albion on 3 November 1973. (That grim game was the perfect introduction to life as a Cardiff City fan in the 1970s and 80s. My Latin teacher said there was an easy way to remember what nihil meant: it was the number of goals City was likely to score.)

Man United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seemed totally out of his depth as a premier league manager since succeeding the popular Malky Mackay last December. Cardiff could do worse than to offer Moyes the chance to rebuild his reputation in Wales. For all their troubles this season, City are in better health than in November 1973 when O’Farrell was appointed. And Moyes remains a decent manager, as he showed at Everton.

Newport County back in the Football League

I’m delighted that Newport County are returning to the Football League after 25 years. It completes an unforgettable season for Welsh football, with Swansea winning the League Cup and Cardiff promoted to the Premier League. It’s just a shame that Newport pipped another Welsh club, Wrexham. (Wrexham have some consolation in winning the FA Trophy at Wembley.)

Growing up in South Wales, I was familiar with County’s precarious existence. In 1976, Manchester United played against a South Wales XI at Ninian Park to raise money to save the club from bankruptcy. BBC Wales Today filmed the then County chairman Cyril Rogers playing the piano to sooth the tension of fighting for the club’s existence. The campaign succeeded, and just five years later County narrowly lost a European Cup Winners Cup quarter final against Carl Zeiss Jena. But it was a mere stay of execution: Newport lost their league status in 1988 and went bust the following year. It’s little short of a miracle that the club has now regained league status.

The big question: has any other playoff to enter the Football League been contested by two former quarter finalists from a European competition? (Wrexham also narrowly lost a European Cup Winners Cup quarter final, to Anderlecht in 1975/76.)

Cardiff City, Premier League

Cardiff City are in the Premier League. Over 50 years since relegation from the old first division, we are once again in our neighbour’s football top flight. It’s also 86 years almost to the week since City became the only club from outside England to win the FA Cup.

Almost a year ago, I blogged my criticism for Cardiff City’s Malaysian owners’ decision to change the club red.  That reaction now seems churlish. Red looks like City’s lucky colour. And we should thank the Bluebirds’ Malaysian owners for helping the team make history.

Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final

Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final, April 2008

Our family has spent many hours cheering on Cardiff City. My father, Bob Skinner, took me to my first City game almost 40 years ago. (Against West Brom, on 3 November 1973 – we lost 1-0.) He was born within a goal kick of West Ham’s ground, which meant I grew up with affection for both clubs. (By coincidence, West Ham adopted a City song, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’.) Family loyalties were stretched when we went to West Ham to see City in November 1979, but Cardiff lost 3-0. West Ham did well against the three Welsh teams in the old second division that autumn.

Five years ago, we watched City win an FA Cup semi final against Barnsley to reach a Wembley cup final for the first time since 1927. Another breakthrough in City’s renaissance. We should pay tribute to then manager Dave Jones for that revival.

Cardiff join Swansea in the Premier League. It’s the first time Wales has had two clubs in the top flight. A special moment.

Six Nations Champions: Wales smash England

Six Nations Champions

Six Nations Champions

England entered Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on the brink of winning a grand slam. They left with their dreams in tatters after Wales destroyed the old enemy * in one of the finest displays ever from a Welsh team.

A Welsh victory seemed likely after England’s deeply unconvincing victory over Italy last Sunday. But few could have imagined that we’d win by a 27 point margin.

Wales may not have won a grand slam today. (The opening half against Ireland ensured that wasn’t to be.) But it felt as good as a slam: our most convincing win ever against England; the first time we have retained the championship since 1979; and the most enthralling game in years.

The only disappointment? I didn’t have any Brains SA in the house to toast an amazing victory.

Cymru am byth!

* Note to English wife and friends: ‘old enemy’ is a term of endearment. We’re the best of friends and neighbours. We forgive you for Edward I, the imposed act of union, the Welsh Not and much more…

PS: credit to BBC Wales for its witty rebranding of BBC One (below) to mark our famous victory….

BBC Won Wales

BBC Won Wales

Remembering Tony Greig and Christopher Martin-Jenkins

Cricket lost two legends as 2012 gave way to 2013. First Tony Greig, the South Africa-born 1970s England captain. As if that wasn’t enough, within three days the voice of cricket, BBC commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins lost his battle against cancer.

Both featured heavily in my 1970s teenage holidays. Cricket was the sound track to my summer, courtesy of the BBC’s Test Match Special (TMS) and I loved Tony Greig’s confident style and sense of humour. I was enthralled in the hot summer of 1976 by his wonderful partnership with Alan Knott in the Leeds test against the West Indies. (Both scored 116.) It was the highlight of a disappointing series for England, and I remember listening to the latest collapse on the radio as we enjoyed the heatwave at Tintagel.

Greig looked foolish after his boastful claim that his team would make the West Indies grovel. (Although a 3-0 series defeat looked good compared with the 1984 whitewash.) Yet Greig’s sense of humour won friends, as his team mate and friend Mike Selvey explained in a Guardian tribute.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins (CMJ) was the voice of reason in the often chaotic TMS commentary box. As the years went by, his authority grew and it’s not unreasonable to argue that he was cricket’s greatest reporter – on air and in print.

They’ll both be sadly missed.

I was there: the night Jock Stein died

Ticket to tragedy: the night Jock Stein died

Wales are playing Scotland in a FIFA world cup qualifier tonight. It’s a fixture freighted with ill luck for Wales and tragedy for everyone. On a September night 27 years ago, Scotland’s revered manager Jock Stein collapsed and died at Ninian Park after his team qualified for Mexico 1986 at our expense. As Max Boyce would say, I was there.

I had a pitch-side view of the events of that extraordinary night, although I didn’t see Jock himself. I described the experience in my blog five tears ago:

“My friend Anthony Beer and I sold programmes at the dramatic Wales v Scotland World Cup qualifier game at Ninian Park, Cardiff. My diary notes that we were the only sellers inside the ground; we went down the players’ tunnel as the Welsh national anthem was played. We had to exchange programmes for cash through the netting that kept fans from the pitch – not so easy when many fans wanted five or more! We soon ran out of our initial 500 – the Welsh FA had printed just 20,000 programmes for a crowd of 40,000.

“We saw Mark Hughes give Wales an early lead before Scotland snatched a draw through a very dubious penalty, ending Wales’ hopes of playing in the 1986 Mexico finals. Afterwards, we passed Scotland’s Willie Miller being interviewed live on ITV as we took our takings in to the offices under the grandstand next to the dressing room. It was there that we heard that the Scotland manager, Jock Stein, had collapsed. Later, we heard the tragic news that he had died. We collected our £10 seller’s fees and walked out of the ground as an ambulance driver manoeuvred to avoid a Securicor van. Scottish and British football had lost a legend – the first manager to lead a club from these islands to victory in the European Cup.”

PS: Wales won! Cymru am byth. That will help overcome the painful memories of 1977 and 1985.

Lance Armstrong: It’s not about the bike, it’s about the doping

It’s hard when heroes turn into villains. Today I finally accepted that Lance Armstrong doped his way to an extraordinary seven successive Tour de France victories. The fairytale story of the cancer survivor who went on to dominate one of the world’s most punishing sports now looks like a grim story of cheating and drug abuse rather than heroic endeavour.

There’s still a chance Armstrong may be vindicated. But the fact he’s not fighting the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s case against him strongly suggests he knows the game’s up.

Over a decade ago, I was enthralled and inspired by Armstrong’s moving account of his battle against cancer, It’s Not about the Bike. It was one of my spurs to complete the Land’s End to John O’Groats ride 10 years ago. I knew all about cycling’s sordid relationship with drugs, notably the 1998 Tour de France’s Festina affair. (Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on this culture in Rough Ride.) But I believed the Armstrong line: he was the most tested cyclist in history. And every one had shown him to be clean. Karen and I followed Armstrong’s annual progress in Le Tour. I wore the US Postal team kit on several cycling holidays.

I admired his dedication as well as his success. I loved his account of winter practice in the French mountains: after a long ascent, he told his team to do it all over again, as he wasn’t happy with his performance. This when his top rival Jan Ullrich was piling on the winter kilograms.

One by one, his contemporaries were disgraced in doping scandals: Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Alexander Vinokourov, Roberto Heras… the list is endless. I blogged my disillusionment after Landis failed a dope test after winning the 2006 Tour. My post quoted a comment from a German broadcaster:  “We have signed a contract to show a sports event not a showcase for the pharmaceutical industry.” A year later I wrote of the Tour de France entering last chance saloon as yet another drugs scandal hit. Yet Armstrong appeared the innocent despite similar allegations. It seems the appearance was a sham.

I hope that the new generation of cyclists will discard the tainted world of Armstrong, Ullrich, Landis and Heras. All the signs are that Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s very first Tour winner, and his contemporaries are true, clean heroes. London 2012 was a fitting showcase for them. Yet there was one sour note. The disgraced Alexander Vinokourov won gold in the Olympics road race.

How will the allegations about Lance Armstrong impact his charitable foundation, Livestrong? So far, it seems to be unscathed. (It helps that Armstrong’s name is not the charity’s identity. The Jimmy Savile Charitable Trust has no such luck.) Time will tell.

Remembering Cardiff City’s Jimmy Andrews

Jimmy Andrews, who has died aged 85, was Cardiff City’s manager when the Bluebirds slipped into the third division in 1975 for the first time since the 1940s. Yet he led the club straight back up, and also presided over an enthralling FA Cup run with stunning victories over Spurs and Wrexham. (I blogged about City’s 1977 FA Cup run during our even more remarkable 2008 campaign.)

I started going to Ninian Park regularly during that promotion season of 1975/76. Cardiff struggled in early games against the likes of Halifax and Bury, but I was hooked with a series of thrillers – especially a 4-3 Friday night win against Chesterfield on my 12th birthday and a 2-0 victory against league leaders Hereford. (I was one of 35,000 who watched that one!)

Jimmy Andrews – a regular in the South Wales Echo 1977

Jimmy Andrews deserves credit for the success he enjoyed during his time as manager. (The 25 years that followed proved bleaker, with long years in the old third and fourth divisions.) He showed he was ready to take a gamble, signing Robin Friday, one of the most exotic players to wear City’s (old) colours. I saw Friday on his debut on 1 January 1977 against Fulham. I went mainly to see George Best, who was then playing for Fulham. (I should have known that Best would never have turned up on New Year’s day…) But I saw Friday score two against Bobby Moore’s team. Friday soon proved too wild for Andrews to tame – as he may have suspected when his new player was arrested on his way to sign for Cardiff for travelling using a platform ticket.

I didn’t realise back then that Jimmy Andrews was a former West Ham player. Until his death this month he was the oldest surviving former Hammer.

PS: the cutting below refers to a league game with Chelsea, then in the old second division. Not easy times for the future European champions!

Managing challenging times

Thank you, London 2012

An amazing summer: London 2012

The closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games is under way. In a short while, London 2012 will be over. Six amazing weeks, and countless breathtaking memories.

I’ve blogged before that I’ve turned from a sceptic about the cost and benefit of hosting the games to a belief that they’ve been a landmark for Britain. And I posted last week about our inspirational day at the Olympic Stadium watching the Paralympics.

Track magic

Thank you to everyone involved in making London 2012 such an amazing experience and such a huge success, from the athletes to the Games Makers, from the organisers to the countless workers who made it happen. (And the broadcasters who brought these wonders into our homes.) We’ll never forget these six weeks – our sensational summer.